A Different Kind of Pipeline Project Scrambles Midwest Politics
For more than a decade, the Midwest was the site of bitter clashes over plans for thousand-mile pipelines meant to carry crude oil beneath cornfields and cattle ranches.
Now high-dollar pipeline fights are happening again, but with a twist.
Instead of oil, these projects would carry millions of tons of carbon dioxide from ethanol plants to be injected into underground rock formations rather than dispersed as pollutants in the air.
What is playing out is a very different kind of environmental battle, a huge test not just for farmers and landowners but for emerging technologies promoted as ways to safely store planet-warming carbon.
The technology has generated support from powerful politicians in both parties, as well as major farming organizations, ethanol producers, and some environmental groups.
Supporters, including some farmers who have signed agreements to have a pipeline buried on their property, frame the ideas being proposed by the two companies as a win for both the economy and the environment. They say the pipelines, boosted by federal tax credits, including from the Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed last year, would lower carbon emissions while aiding the agricultural economy through continued ethanol production.
But opponents are concerned about property rights and safety, and are not convinced of the projects’ claimed environmental benefits. They have forged unlikely alliances that have blurred the region’s political lines, uniting conservative farmers with liberal urbanites, white people with Native Americans, and small-government Republicans with climate-conscious Democrats.
The result, both sides agree, is a high-stakes economic and environmental struggle pitting pipeline advocates against opponents who honed their political and legal strategies over nearly 15 years of fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which has been in operation since 2017, and the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which was never built.
There is no question that technology exists to remove carbon from industrial sites and to transport and store it underground. Less clear: Is carbon capture an effective counterweight to the overheating planet? And, if so, at what cost?
‘A very well-laid-out plan’
Orrin Geide, who raises corn, soybeans, cattle, and bison near Hartford, South Dakota, has fought a pipeline before.
Nearly 10 years ago, Geide learned his land was on the route for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which carries oil from North Dakota to Illinois. He appeared with his sister in local news articles and pleaded with state regulators to block construction. He said he agreed to let the pipeline cross his land only when construction felt inevitable.
Now, Geide finds himself along another pipeline route, this time for an unfamiliar technology that he said feels even riskier than the oil flowing beneath his bison.
“If this goes through, I’ll have to rethink what the future will hold,” said Geide, whose farm is on the path for the roughly 2,000-mile pipeline proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions, which would carry carbon dioxide across five states to underground storage in North Dakota. If built, supporters say, it would be the largest such pipeline in the world.
When Dakota Access and Keystone XL were proposed years ago, they fused a politically mixed band of farmers, Native Americans, and environmentalists who waged a two-front war against the pipelines through relentless litigation and spirited protest.
Despite the obvious differences from oil pipelines, the new carbon pipeline proposals have mobilized some of the same activists and even involved some of the same acreages. While many landowners have signed easements for the carbon pipelines — access to more than 63% of land on the Summit route has been secured — others have refused.
This time, said Brian Jorde, a lawyer who represented Keystone XL landowners and now represents many farmers on the carbon routes, opponents have a playbook to guide them. Landowners have tried to prevent the pipeline companies from surveying their land, pressed county governments to enact moratoriums on carbon pipelines, and signed up en masse to intervene in state permitting hearings.
“From being through an 11-year battle and all the twists and turns and the hundreds of lawsuits” on Keystone XL, Jorde said, “we’ve got a very well-laid-out plan.”
‘For the greater good
In a world already being reshaped by climate change, the promise of carbon capture is tantalizing. The reality is complicated.
The idea behind the Summit pipeline is to take carbon dioxide from ethanol plants, where it is a byproduct of corn being turned into fuel, and transport it for underground storage. A similar project proposed by Navigator CO2 Ventures would keep some of its carbon above ground for commercial use and store the rest underground in Illinois.
“This is not just about the landowner that owns the land today, this is very much about a generational, transitional move,” said Lee Blank, the CEO of Summit. He said he was making the case to farmers that carbon capture had the potential to “be as significant for the agricultural marketplace as the ethanol space was itself.”
The technology, if not the specific pipeline projects, has received support from several state-level Republicans, along with votes of confidence in Washington, where both the Trump and Biden administrations made building the pipelines more lucrative.
“It’s just for the greater good of our climate,” said Ron Alverson, a retired farmer in South Dakota who is on the board of Dakota Ethanol, which plans to use one of the pipelines to sequester carbon from its facility, and the board of the American Coalition for Ethanol.
The projects, if built, would be a major expansion of the country’s existing network of more than 5,300 miles of carbon pipelines. Some along the routes question whether the technology is fully proven and safe, citing the explosion of a carbon pipeline in Mississippi in 2020 that led to the hospitalization of 45 people and a federal review of safety standards.
“If one of them breaks, there’s absolutely nothing I can do but turn tail and run and hope to hell I don’t die,” said Donald Johnson, chief of the volunteer fire department in Valley Springs, a small town along South Dakota’s border with Minnesota, near where the Navigator pipeline would run.
There has been a growing sense among landowners that leaders “of both of our parties are screwing us with this deal and looking the other way,” said Chase Jensen, an organizer and lobbyist for Dakota Rural Action, an agriculture and conservation group that opposed Keystone XL and is against the carbon pipelines. Some landowners who supported the oil pipelines, he said, were reconsidering those views in light of the carbon projects.
“Irrespective of what’s in the pipeline, they suddenly come face to face with the principle of it: that no one should be forced to accept a project if they don’t want it if it’s not a public utility,” Jensen said.
The climate argument is a particularly hard sell among the holdout landowners. Some farmers interviewed for this article said they did not believe the science behind climate change, while others acknowledged global warming but questioned whether carbon pipelines were going to make much of a difference.
“It’s an absolute boondoggle,” said Betty Strom, who owns farmland along the Summit route in Lake County, South Dakota.
Strom, whose husband was a science teacher, said she worried about the climate and believed “we’re going to lose our planet” without urgent action. But she did not believe that carbon pipelines were part of the remedy.
Environmental groups are also conflicted, varying widely on whether carbon pipelines could be part of a solution.
Some groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, are at least somewhat supportive of the technology, calling for carbon capture as part of an “all-of-the-above” approach to reducing emissions. Others, including Food & Water Watch and the Sierra Club, dismiss the projects as blatant “greenwashing” that could lead to profit for energy companies contributing to global warming without addressing the root causes of climate change.
‘Why do they have a right to come in?’
Karla Lems is a rural landowner, a conservative Republican, and a newly elected member of the South Dakota House of Representatives. She is also a vocal opponent of carbon pipelines.
Lems, who owns land along both the Navigator and Summit routes, said she did not see the merits of the projects and did not appreciate “private companies coming in and saying, ‘Well, you know if we get the permit that we’re asking for, we’re going to roll through here whether you like it or not.’”
It was that question of property rights that resounded with opponents, including across political lines. Even some supporters of the projects said they were sympathetic to those concerns.
Although both Navigator and Summit have said they want to reach agreements with landowners, providing cash and legal guarantees in exchange for the right to bury and maintain their pipelines, the companies have also made clear that they would be willing to use eminent domain if state permits were granted and negotiations reached an impasse.
In an agriculture-dependent region where farmers’ ties to their land often stretch back generations, the right to decide what goes in a field and what does not is sacrosanct.
Farmers are far from unanimous, though. Scores of them have already signed easements, and some are actively cheering on the projects.
“We haul all of our corn to ethanol plants and we need this market, so we want to secure this for the long-term future,” said Kelly Nieuwenhuis, a farmer in northwest Iowa who signed agreements with Summit and Navigator and who is also a director at an ethanol plant. Although he said he understood the property rights arguments, Nieuwenhuis said he was confident “that they’re going to have this project done right — the safety equipment is going to be there.”
As negotiations continue with individual landowners, the debates over the pipelines’ fates are shifting to state legislatures and permitting boards.
Bills that would make permitting or construction of pipelines more difficult were introduced this year in Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota, all Republican-controlled states. One such bill sponsored by Lems passed the South Dakota House but failed to advance in the Senate.
Just like with the oil pipelines, both sides have already proved they are willing to go to court to press their arguments.
“It’s kind of David vs. Goliath, that’s how I feel,” Lems said. “Because they have the money. They have the backing. And it may come down to moving it through the court system and seeing what the court would do with it.”